By and  on January 14, 2008

FLORENCE, ITALY — An army of enormous Transformer-like robots stood guard at the Fortezza da Basso during last week’s Pitti Immagine Uomo here, providing a metaphor for both Pitti organizers and Italian men’s wear companies ready to protect their ground.

It was hardly doomsday, but vendors and retailers during the four-day event showed restraint while expressing subdued optimism, a mood spurred by encouraging pre-fall sales but tempered by economic reality.

“There is a calmness to this edition,” said Tommy Fazio, fashion director at Bergdorf Goodman Men. “There’s a bit of a different energy.”

The strength of the euro, a headache that appears to be developing into a migraine, stayed on the fringes of conversation. Yes, it’s painful and no pill will help, but both vendors and retailers, who have lived with fluctuations for the past five years, preferred to talk about collections rather than currencies.

“We’re feeling good,” said Roger Cohen, president and COO of Corneliani USA. “We’re cautiously optimistic and I think that’s going to be the line of most companies this year.”

Giorgio Canali, president of North American operations at his family’s company, offered a similarly balanced assessment. He predicted a double-digit sales increase, buoyed by 20 planned store openings worldwide this year—but said nonetheless, he was keeping a watchful eye on the economy.

Collections—many of them dark, safe and purposeful—also seemed to take their cue from the economy. Even Brunello Cucinelli, Pitti’s resident philosopher, traded in his signature white cords for gray flannel. But in many collections color did shine through in pops of rusts, regal purples and classic sky blues.

Functionality and luxury—watchwords for the past few seasons—remained relevant as companies sought to increase their clout by focusing on what they do best and seeking ways to do it even better. The thinking this season: Why have a jacket with a built-in center panel when you can have one with a whole vest? Why wear a cashmere blazer when you can have one crafted in sable? But the approach was more than just arbitrary adding on or trading up; it was well-thought-out design.

The tuxedo and any variation on it was the breakout news of Pitti, with many vendors calling the category a stellar seller thanks to its appeal to a younger consumer.

No company had more riffs on le smoking than Canali. The Italian brand showed several versions and not one of them relied on satin lapels. Instead, Canali’s design team crafted cool velvet models with geometric cutouts or supple wool jackets with an imperceptible flower motif woven into micro-tweed prints. The jackets were paired with jeans or trousers to underscore their versatility.

“The input we’re getting from the market is that there are real needs for new things made well,” said Elisabetta Canali, head of image and marketing.

The company, which will open key flagships in the U.S., Australia, India and Hong Kong this year, has been plying its stores with loftier merchandise each season. For fall it incorporated vicuna, sable and chinchilla yarns into much of its product. Its centerpiece tie, called “24 Carat Gold,” featured silk and gold threads. Canali is set to launch a new fragrance, Canali Style, this spring and recently signed a licensing agreement with Bresciani for socks.

Each season Italian companies put a higher and higher premium on exclusive products. On the occasion of its 50th anniversary this year, Corneliani introduced a series of limited-edition pieces, including a cashmere, unlined suit and a cashmere/silk blazer and overcoat. Numbered and signed, the pieces will retail in Corneliani stores, as well as in a select number of retail outlets. Maurizio Corneliani, head of worldwide sales, said the 50th anniversary suit, a well-appointed gray mini-tweed, would retail for around $4,000.

Corneliani has successfully transitioned from suit label to lifestyle brand, and for fall it showed both sides. Business dress was chic, dark, striped and slim, while palettes grew lighter and softer for weekend activities.

The company’s successful Jazz Jacket from last fall evolved into the Jazz Suit this season. The versatile outfit allows a wearer to look appropriate in the boardroom but also, thanks to functional details, adapts to the elements outside.

If there was one booth with palpable buzz it was at Brunello Cucinelli. Each season the Umbria-based luxury company delivers terrific luxury sportswear with just enough novelty to attract the everyman. For fall, Cucinelli, the man, set his cashmere-covered magic wand on the vest. The sweater vests or sleeveless knits, depending on what you choose to call them, came with hoodies and stylish wood buttons.

Jackets, cut from an ultra-lightweight flannel, sported slanted side pockets for a sportier look. Tab closures at the neck provided extra protection from those nasty colpi d’aria, or drafts, of which Italians have an inherent fear.

For Gianluca Isaia, the only thing to fear is staid patterns. Each season he stands out more vividly as the ambassador of Isaia’s unconventional Neapolitan style. Gianluca proudly manned the Isaia booth in a bold orange and gray plaid suit, set off by his new Superga sneaks (see story, page 44).

Isaia’s niche is the younger luxury consumer, and this season the company decided to give him a new name: the eteropolitan. “He’s an evolution of the metrosexual,” said Gianluca. “He’s a man who takes care of himself but doesn’t feel the need to be ostentatious. It’s come natural to him.”

For fall, the eteropolitan is feeling color and sportswear. Isaia showed a medley of handsome overcoats and jackets in alpaca and supple corduroy, respectively. The company’s signature—suits, done in shades of blue, at times with orange accents—contrasted nicely with the sea of dark in so many collections. Finally, Isaia demonstrated organic could reach the luxury level. The company introduced Isaia Natural—knits and jeans made from pure cotton and cashmere and dyed naturally using tea leaves or walnuts.

Hickey Freeman’s cheeky, younger sibling, hickey, came out kicking for its Pitti debut, offering plenty of heritage—rich men’s wear with added jolts of attitude.

The design team assembled patchwork blazers from traditional suitings, while another sport coat boasted embroidered skulls with snowflakes in lieu of crossbones. Hickey jackets have softer shoulders for the season, yet retain their slim fits, high armholes and modestly shorter lengths. Pants too have been tweaked, with quarter-top pockets.

Outerwear looked to give customers extra bang for the buy. A classic hunting coat was made of resinated cotton rather than oilcloth, and came with a quilted nylon vest, which could be worn underneath for extra warmth or separately. Neckwear, for hickey, is always an expression of irony, and for fall new motifs included boxing gloves, bees, razor blades and horseshoes, while hickey’s signature cannabis leaf looked brighter than ever.

Hickey didn’t hide a youthful vice in the closet, but Kiton decided it was time to put its luxurious garments in many of them. Visitors at the Neapolitan mainstay’s booth found a series of leather-covered armoires. In them hung stylish groupings of clothes. Behind door one—pieces for the club. Behind door two—suits, shirts and ties for a business trip abroad.

“Everyone has his own mood in the morning,” said Massimo Bizzocchi, chairman of Kiton Corp. “Every day is a new adventure and this format shows in a very visual way that our customers today are confident enough to match and wears things the way they want to.”

Confidence is also something Kiton has in spades. Mt. Vesuvius could erupt and the company would still be bullish about sales, thanks to its loyal, rarefied clientele.

Since bringing the designers Viktor Horsting and Rolf Snoeren of Viktor & Rolf to the creative helm, Allegri has consistently proven to be the most charmingly witty among the designer rainwear makers, especially through its print motifs. The print of the season is a tight grid of suitcases, with a soybean-sized suitcase occasionally replaced by an airplane, in beige on brown.

This season the design duo chose travel as their theme, sensibly allowing certain threads to continue from the previous season’s aviation theme. Much of the outerwear had the utilitarian features of flight suits. But the inspiration for the collection was said to come specifically from travel in the 1950s through ’70s, the golden age of commercial aviation, when flying—like an Allegri coat—was a luxury.

These days, anything that eases the hassle of flying is a blessing, and that includes the new Packable Trench. It can be folded entirely into its leather hip pockets, which zip together to form a rectangular pouch that you can toss into a suitcase.

Tie maker Breuer made clear that it’s not just for dressy ties and shirts anymore, and it even branded most of its sport coats and sweaters with its logo—a letter B inside a simple crest. Its small range of geelong lambswool sweaters was available for the U.S. for the first time. (Geelong is a cashmere alternative that comes from Australia.)

The company is known for striped ties, and it worked some of its signature stripes into scarves of wool, cashmere/silk and wool/silk.

Breuer certainly didn’t abandon its tie roots, however. The back wall of its booth was stuffed with traditional neckties—about half of them black and gray, the other half red and navy. And since so many men are wearing ties with jeans these days, Breuer had dressed down some of its silk with stonewashing.

Ermenegildo Zegna may have been the first to dub its high-end sportswear offering “upper casual,” but it’s certainly not the last.

Ballantyne, the knitwear master, introduced a full range of luxe, sporty, modern pieces like cashmere and sheepskin bombers, compact knit tuxedos and slim, brushed-cotton trousers.

“We are really pushing to develop the brand in a very high-end range,” said Matteo Montezemolo, board member of Ballantyne’s parent company, Charm. “Three years ago we had only knitwear; today we have a really complete line of products.”

After London, Milan and Tokyo, Montezemolo said, the next retail opening will be here, on Via Tornabuoni.

Shirtmaker Lorenzini is moving ahead with the “1920” line it introduced a season ago. The premium line of dress shirts joins details from the company archives with fine fabrics and modern fits. The shirts have extra length in the back and feature a buttoning loop called a trouser tab, which originally secured the shirt to the inside of the trouser waistband. Batiste cotton lines part of the chest, yoke, sleeve placket and farfalla (the triangle at the bottom of the side seam).

This also is the second season for Lorenzini’s youthful Ville collection, featuring slim fits, stretch and groovy prints.

In addition, Lorenzini has been enjoying the success of its silk pajamas and velvet robes in Russia and its three-pack of boxers at Bergdorf Goodman Men.

Aquascutum has briefly pressed rewind on design strategy. Luxurious classics had taken a back seat, according to designer Graeme Fiddler, but are now at the forefront once again. The company is refocused on four pillars of the brand, he said: the trench coat, military, glamour and innovation. All four are embodied by the Fairmount trench, a classic shape that previously was only available in traditional trench fabrics. Now it comes in navy-blue trench made of a compact wool gabardine with a pressed finish. It has pewter officer-style buttons. Black leather trim, found under the collar and backing the belt, adds glamour. And for innovation, the coat has a durable water-resistant finish.

Having hired Andrea Pesaresi, a former chief marketing officer from Ermenegildo Zegna USA, Aquascutum is preparing to push for wider distribution in the U.S.

In an effort to assert its brand identity more aggressively, Pal Zileri has chosen the winged lion of Venice as its logo, and staked a claim on pinstripes. The pattern appears throughout the fall collection—on scarves, luggage, elbow patches, a raincoat and even shoes.

The company is also striving for emotional impact through its use of color and special details, such as leather accents on sporty outerwear. Color groupings include violet and gray, red with navy, and brown with “milk” and orange.

And from a price-sensitive point of view, Pal Zileri has a cotton jacket that feels deceptively like 100 percent cashmere.

Valstar’s outerwear with removable linings has sold well lately, especially in the U.S., and this season the company continued to beef up its offerings with versatility and discernible added value. Field jackets and woolen cloth coats featured detachable fur collars. Double-faced cashmere blousons were reversible. And for the ultimate twofer, a cashmere-blend vest was included with a straight trench.

Valstar made one of the most famous trench coats in history, the one Humphrey Bogart wore in Casablanca. At long last, the company has introduced a Model Humphrey, a classic, belted trench in technical cotton and lined in a patterned cashmere blend.

A slim-fit, leather blouson was a hit in the spring, and returns for fall/winter both in leather and fabric.

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